TAMPA, Fla. — For Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the winning touchdown pass with one second left in Monday night’s 35-31 win over Alabama was perfect, not only because it gave his Tigers their first national championship in 35 years, but because of how well it captured his team’s identity.
“To me, that moment, that epitomizes what our program is all about,” Swinney said Tuesday morning, having stayed up until sunrise celebrating the win. “You’ve got the five-star quarterback throwing the game-winning touchdown to the walk-on wideout . . . just a microcosm of our team and our program.”
Deshaun Watson, who threw for 400-plus yards and accounted for four touchdowns for the second time in as many national championship games against Alabama, is headed to the NFL, where he could be a top-10 pick. Swinney remembers when Watson wanted to commit to Clemson as a high school sophomore, a huge recruit who would ultimately guide the Tigers to a championship.
On the other end — of the touchdown pass and the football spectrum — is sophomore receiver Hunter Renfrow, a 5-11 former walk-on who had a career-high 10 catches Monday, including two touchdowns. Swinney prides himself on treating the biggest recruit and the least-known walk-on with the same respect.
“It’s just amazing to me. If you lined all of our managers up, he’d be about the 10th guy you’d pick to be Hunter Renfrow,” Swinney said. “Last year, everybody is like ‘Why are we playing Hunter Renfrow?’ I mean, I’m at practice every day, and he’s the best player, period.”
After trailing the entire game, Watson led the Tigers on an 88-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 4:38 left, only to see Alabama answer with a 68-yard drive to go back ahead with 2:07 left. That set up the winning touchdown, but Swinney pointed to two plays — one each from his QB and WR — that made the win possible.
Down 10 in the third quarter, facing a fourth-and-1 at Alabama’s 43, Swinney lined up to go for it but called for Watson to execute a quick-kick, and his punt was downed at the 5-yard line. A defensive stop and bad punt set the Tigers up at the Alabama 42, and they’d score to get back within three points.
Even more unsung was Renfrow’s play on the opening drive of the second half, when Clemson lost a fumble and Alabama’s Ryan Anderson took off for a potential touchdown, only to be tackled by Renfrow at the 16-yard line. The defense held Alabama to a field goal.
“[Watson’s punt] and the tackle by Renfrow were just two plays mixed in with a bunch of plays, but man, those were monsters,” Swinney said. “That was one of the big keys for us.”
That would ultimately set up a confident Watson, who got the ball at his 32 with 2:01 to play and smiled, knowing what his offense was capable of doing.
“Just an awesome time,” Watson said. “God put us there for a reason, and we just went out there. I told the guys: ‘Hey, let’s be great. Let’s be special.’ It was an awesome feeling and a great way to finish off the game.”